In February 2019, a specially called General Conference of the global United Methodist Church met in St. Louis to find a way forward together regarding over four decades of divisive disputes about homosexuality. The results of the conference stunned many and left the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary community not only surprised but also reeling.
Two plans were considered. The “One Church Plan” proposed a contextual decision-making option allowing for exercise of the difference of conscience by clergy, church members and local geographic regions. The “Traditional Plan” would retain current prohibitions in the United Methodist Book of Discipline against ordaining homosexual persons and against clergy officiating at same-sex unions. However, it also broadened the definition of what constituted a violation and added measures to ensure compliance, including financial penalties and a stronger effort to bring offenders to trial.
To the dismay of both sides, the Traditional Plan emerged with majority support, 53% of 822 voting delegates from around the world. It will go into effect Jan. 1, 2020. Simply put, the primary outcome of this decision is a renewed and stricter commitment to enforce the letter of the law. Expensive church trials will sharply increase, with serious consequences for violation, including a one-year suspension of pay. A second violation will result in another year of suspended pay and mandatory surrender of ordination credentials. LGBTQIA+ persons are still hurt, angry and afraid for their vocational futures in ministry.
Like many of our 13 United Methodist theological schools in the U.S., the animating force of our work is based upon basic teachings in our faith: the love of God, the love of neighbor, and seeking justice for the oppressed. Given this educational context, the results of the conference have been traumatic for our LGBTQIA+ students already in the process of pursuing United Methodist ordination, for those considering ordination, and for their allies. They struggle with safety concerns and whether or not to remain a part of the denomination.
In the midst of the confusion and dismay, I discovered a compelling word from William Sloane Coffin, former chaplain at Yale University and pastor of Riverside Church in New York City. He said, “The integrity of love is stronger than the purity of dogma.” I see this maxim in the approximatelytwo-thirds of U.S. United Methodists who support a progressive/centrist position on LGBTQIA+ inclusion. While acknowledging serious differences of perspective, these Methodists would prefer to remain United Methodists focused on the ministry priorities described above, rather than splitting or squandering resources in witch hunts and punitive measures. We know that dogmatic divisiveness compromises what can be done together for the well-being of all persons.
It is not yet clear what the full implications will be for the church, its agencies and its many institutions of higher education. A regularly scheduled General Conference will be held in Minneapolis in May 2020. United Methodist leaders are earnestly engaged in planning new legislation for this gathering. Proposals and plans to avoid splitting or to amicably separate are being developed and refined.
No matter what happens in 2020, what I do know is that inside and outside our walls, Garrett-Evangelical seeks to embody a radical hospitality informed by the teachings of Jesus. Our mission is to educate, prepare, and equip bold spiritual leaders for the church, the academy and the world. We want our graduates to be faith leaders who will join with other people of faith, of different faiths, or of no faith, who share the values and desire to work together for the common good.
Eliza Garrett, widow of Chicago mayor Augustus Garrett, founded Garrett Biblical Institute in 1853. She did so with a vision that ordained Methodists, who had no lack of zeal, should also be well educated clergy. I like to believe she would have been gratified not only by the spiritual zeal demonstrated in our students, faculty and alumni at the February General Conference, but also by their educated, bold prophetic voices and by their witness to God’s inclusive and welcoming love.
I like to think Eliza would have been gratified to see how her mid-19th-century gift continues to prepare leaders for the 21st century who are faithfully answering the creative call of God. And, I like to think that Eliza would be gratified by the theologically educated faculty and staff who support our students informed by the wisdom of their own theological educations.
Last October, our Board of Trustees affirmed a community statement proactively affirming our institutional commitment to the full inclusion of LGBTQIA+ persons in the life of the seminary and the Church and as ordained clergy. No matter the decisions of The United Methodist Church, this commitment will not change, and Garrett-Evangelical will remain welcoming and inclusive of the LGBTQIA+ community.
We stand with our LGBTQIA+ students, faculty, staff and alumni, and will continue to prepare and equip all our students for transformational ministries. This is in the heart of Garrett-Evangelical’s mission, and it is my promise to the Evanston community.
Lallene J. Rector is the President, Garrett-Evangelical Theological